Rescue Efforts and Race
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GWEN IFILL: As we looked into the faces of the people who suffered most from the ravages of Hurricane Katrina, it quickly became clear most of those on rooftops, the porches and in the shelters were black. Rap stars raged about it and it became Sunday dinner table conversation around the country.
So did race and class play a role, implicitly or explicitly, in determining who suffered and how, or if, they were rescued?
We take a look at the wide range of opinion on that topic, with Wade Henderson, the executive director of the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights. Dawn Turner Trice, a columnist for the Chicago Tribune. She’s just back from chronicling the story in Mississippi. Marta Tienda, a professor of sociology and public affairs at Princeton University, where she writes about race, poverty and social policy. And we hope to be joined in a moment with William Jefferson, the congressman representing the city of New Orleans. He will join us hopefully tonight from Baton Rouge.
Wade Henderson, we have seen the faces of people in distress, black faces in distress, we’ve heard the famous performers, Kanye West, denounce the handing of this, we have heard this anguished debate. So in your opinion, did class, race or some other combination play a role in the response to this hurricane?
WADE HENDERSON: Gwen, step back for a minute. Hurricane Katrina was a natural disaster of almost unprecedented proportion. Our hearts go out to the men and women who were affected by the tragedy, the displaced Americans who have been scattered from their homes. And we also have the deepest appreciation for the workers and volunteers who stepped forward who stepped in the breach, the first responders to really provide relief for the people who were affected.
I think the relief effort has to be our top priority right now, and I think all focus has to be on that. But having said that, I think the pictures that you’ve referred to, what we’ve seen in New Orleans, the powerful and troubling images of those who were left behind in the storm, certainly raises profound questions about why that occurred.
And I think two points are inescapable: First of all, African-American poor were not the only ones affected, certainly they were affected in disproportionate number, but so were poor whites and poor Latinos. Poverty was a unifying factor in the impact of Hurricane Katrina on those left behind.
But secondly I think the legacy of racial discrimination in this country helped to produce the population of people who were left behind and who really are the subject of tonight’s conversation. You can’t have a situation with historic discrimination on the basis of housing, voting, education, and employment and not have a legacy like that which we now have in New Orleans, with a class of people who are poor and who are unable to leave.
There is a lot of criticism of course about the federal government’s response. But I think if you look at what happened, there are only two observations. Either one it was competence or these other factors.
GWEN IFILL: Congressman Jefferson, I think we have you now. I know we were having some audio problems, but I hope can you hear me fine. What’s your response to that? Can you hear me, Congressman Jefferson? Ah, we can’t hear you. We’ll be back with you in just a moment.
Let me go to Dawn Turner Trice for a moment. You just got back from Mississippi. What was your sense in your reporting there of this and whether racism played a role as well?
DAWN TURNER TRICE: Well, Gwen, I covered the Mississippi coliseum, and I talked to a number of people there, most of whom were from New Orleans. And from the very beginning you didn’t have the same type of problems at the coliseum as you had, for example, at the Superdome. One of the reasons was that we can say scale, yes, there were ten times as many people at the Superdome than at the coliseum.
But the other thing was that from the very beginning at the coliseum, you had the Jackson City police officers, you had National Guardsmen who were patrolling the 25,000-square-foot arena floor, making it very clear that under such cramped conditions there was no room for foolishness. You had the American Red Cross who were volunteers who were going around asking people if they had what they needed, if they could be helpful in any way. There was a clinic on site. There were even Hines County minimum security inmates who were pressed into service who were there cleaning up, serving as janitors.
So from the very beginning you had people being treated as though they were human beings and not chattel. So the conditions you had there were very different. And I think we want to see this in terms of the chaos that we saw at the Superdome we may want to see this as a race issue that these are black people acting this way. But I believe that you could put anybody in very dire and desperate conditions and no matter the color and this is what you get– just a very, very bad circumstance. As I said, this didn’t happen at the Mississippi coliseum.
GWEN IFILL: Marta Tienda, I would like to come to you for kind of the broader picture, the history that comes to this. People aren’t obviously reaching these conclusions on just their own natural instincts, there’s a history of where poor people live as well as what happens to them as well.
MARTA TIENDA: Yes. When I first saw the initial photos on Tuesday of the devastation, my first reaction of the faces that were appearing was, my heavens, this has tolled disproportionately on the most vulnerable. There’s no question the entire city was affected, but it was not only New Orleans, it was other places.
The fact of the matter is that the combination of race and class has brought forth — magnified the impact of this catastrophe, because they are more vulnerable. They could not vote with their feet. They could not drive off in some Suburban car, pack up their most precious belongings and hope for the best.
They basically had their lives on the line, and an inability to respond. This is the legacy that we have left in this country with segregation persisting across… especially in some of the large cities. New Orleans happens to be one of the cities that has a disproportionate at number of African-Americans. It has not yet been affected by it and re-contoured with the new immigration, and it has persistent high levels of residential segregation.
The problem with segregation across the nation is what it does is it concentrates inequality along income lines. And it is the combination of race and class that becomes the magnifier of this vulnerability.
GWEN IFILL: What do you say to people who say that this is really all about class and race is just an incidental factor when you talk about this?
MARTA TIENDA: No, there’s some allegations that this was by design a racist response. I would say that whether it’s by design or default, let’s go with the default. But still the design behind the default is the fact that we have very unequal opportunities by racial lines. And it’s the combination of race and class that is different from just being poor or just being black.
GWEN IFILL: I want to go back to Dawn Turner Trice for a moment because actually I’m curious about what the evacuees themselves were saying who you talked to in Mississippi and whether they felt they were victimized because of their race or whether this is something we outsiders are putting on them.
DAWN TURNER TRICE: Well, the people whom I spoke to… and I’m sorry, I have to take this out. The people whom I spoke to did not feel they were victimized necessarily because of their race at the beginning or at the onset because of this hurricane. I mean, there was victimization prior to the hurricane. You can go to places along — Gulfport or places in New Orleans as a tourist and never know that there is a black under class or that the poverty is so stark — the same thing in any city, as we said earlier, around the country.
One of the things that I think that this administration has done a very good job of doing is there’s a prevailing perception that there is no race problem in this country or there is no underclass. And the people whom we see often are the Condi Rices and the Colin Powells, and, yes, black people have done very well and there’s no denying that. But there’s still a group of people who are suffering and they are for all intents and purposes, they’re invisible.
What the storm did was uncover that. What we’re looking at now, we’re shocked because we’ve been told one thing, that “Hey, this doesn’t exist,” and now we’re seeing that it clearly does exist. And there’s the shock, well, we need to get beyond the shock, and there’s a lot of shame that should be involved with that as well.
GWEN IFILL: Wade Henderson, let’s talk about the question that Marta Tienda raised about what happens by design and what happens by default.
WADE HENDERSON: Well, I think there’s a history of racial discrimination in our country, and certainly it’s been overturned by Supreme Court and legislative decisions. But if you look at the reality of American life today, it’s inescapable that race was a factor in affecting the outcome of the way this group of people were actually treated.
I mean, the legacy of racial discrimination in public education continues to be a persistent problem in denying people the opportunity to achieve a level of education performance. Problems in housing discrimination persist, and voting restrictions persist. That’s why it’s important, for example, that we continue to have an effective enforcement of existing civil rights laws.
The problem I think we have in looking at this issue is that most Americans are certainly reluctant to stare squarely in the face of a history of racial discrimination and concede that the problem still exists. And yet when we have circumstances like the response to the poor throughout the Gulf region, not just in of course Louisiana, but in Mississippi as well, I think it reflects a level of discrimination that is born from race although not exclusively race specific…. I mean limited. It is certainly a factor both in race and class, and that’s the issue that we have to confront.
GWEN IFILL: I want to ask you all three a language question, because it’s a debate that a lot of people have been having with me over the last few days as a journalist, which is the use of language. The people who have left New Orleans have been described as evacuees, or as refugees. And there’s loaded intent, people infer, from the use of those two words. Where do you come down on this?
WADE HENDERSON: Well, I think these are displaced American citizens, who have, of course, because of their circumstances been shipped to places around the country. And I think there is a sensitivity among African-Americans in being characterized as refugees within their own country because it seems to suggest that they are the victims of these natural disasters or wars, as in other parts of the world, and it fails to recognize their legitimate claim to protection by the federal, state and local government as citizens entitled to the full benefits of American citizenship. And there’s a sensitivity there.
GWEN IFILL: Dawn Turner Trice, I go to you once again from the on-the-ground point of view from Mississippi. By the way, so viewers know, we still haven’t been able to establish contact with Congressman Jefferson. Is that the sort of thing people are talking about down there, “I can’t believe they’re calling me a refugee”?
DAWN TURNER TRICE: Oh, absolutely, they were really hot about this topic, that specific language. And as many of them said that they understand that there is a definition that would say that a person without a refuge or a place or a home would be… could be considered a refugee. But that word is such a loaded word and when we think about it we think about it more in the international context, in that definition. And I think that a lot of people I talked to felt that they were being considered less than American, and that stung.
GWEN IFILL: Marta Tienda, do those words matter, does that language matter?
MARTA TIENDA: Yes, it does. I was stunned to see the word “refugee” used initially to describe the victims of this catastrophic storm. But there is a lesson here from the immigration literature that could be used to good purpose. We have had refugees in this country and we have learned how to incorporate them into the U.S. fabric so that they can then be very productive citizens.
And I think this is the time to rise to the occasion to look at how we have treated refugees, the political refugees in particular, and given them all of the support of our infrastructure, and made it possible for them to transcend their origins.
With our native population, the African-American population has been displaced by this horrific experience; they should have every possible solution that we have used in the past to produce successful citizens from international refugees. And I think we should use the word “evacuee,” but we do have much experience producing very productive citizens, and it is long overdue for the individuals that have been victimized both by poverty and by segregation.
GWEN IFILL: Now that we’ve talked about this victimization, or at least this hurricane has seemed to throw it into relief what do you think, and I’m going to ask you each briefly because we’re about out of time, what do you think the government should be doing first to address it? That’s for you, Ms. Tienda.
MARTA TIENDA: I think the government needs to — this is a call to action. They should have been doing triage in terms of who are the most vulnerable and move actively along those lines. But I think this event has triggered on the backs of these poor victims, brought it into sharp relief that we have persisting segregation in this country and its consequences are pernicious.
It is high time that we stop pretending that we do not have egregious inequities and that we concentrate by space. So this is an opportunity to rise to the occasion and use the facilities that we’ve used when we’ve had the marialitos come…
GWEN IFILL: Okay. Briefly, Dawn Turner Trice?
DAWN TURNER TRICE: We wrote in the Chicago Tribune this morning a story about a U.S. Naval ship that has been sitting on the Gulf Coast for the longest… it’s designed to dispatch marines and amphibious assaults, it’s got helicopters, doctors, can produce over 100,000 gallons of water a day and it’s just sitting there, it’s languishing, it’s not being used. So one of the things we can do is just really use the things that we have already there at our service and use them effectively.
GWEN IFILL: Brief comment.
WADE HENDERSON: I think this is a call to action, and I think that our government has to suspend business as usual. I think we need a single coordinator for the relief effort, but I also think we have to step up and admit that we have persistent problems with both race and class in our society. And it really focuses on that issue.
GWEN IFILL: Thank you all. I’m sorry we weren’t able to talk to Congressman Jefferson, we’ll try to talk to him another night. Thank you all.
WADE HENDERSON: Thank you.
DAWN TURNER TRICE: Thank you.
MARTA TIENDA: Thank you.